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Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire René Girard Stanford University Among younger women, eating disorders are reaching epidemic proportions. The most widespread and spectacular at this moment is the most recently identified, the so-called bulimia nervosa, characterized by binge eating followed by "purging," sometimes through laxatives or diuretics, more often through self-induced vomiting. Some researchers claim that, in American colleges, at least one third of the female student population is involved to some degree. (Since nine out of ten sufferers are women I will use feminine pronouns in this paper but some undergraduates at Stanford tell me that the epidemic is spreading to male students.) G.M.F. Russell, the first researcher who focused on the specific aspects ofmodern bulimia, is usually presented as the discoverer of a new illness. The title ofhis 1979 publication contradicts this view: "Bulimia Nervosa: An Ominous Variant ofAnorexiaNervosa." And, indeed, all the symptoms he describes had been mentioned before in connection with anorexia (see Bruch). The insurance companies and the medical profession like only welldefined illnesses, and so does the public. We all try to distance ourselves from pathological contamination by giving it a name. Eating disorders are often discussed as ifthey were new varieties ofmeasles or oftyphoid fever. Why distrust the distinction between two illnesses with symptoms as radically opposed as those of anorexia and bulimia? Because we live in a world where eating too much and not eating enough are opposite but inseparable ways ofcoping with the slenderness imperative that dominates 2 René Girard our collective imaginations. Most of us oscillate all our lives between attenuated forms ofthese two pathologies. The man in the street understands perfectly a truth that most specialists prefer not to confront. Our eating disorders are caused by our compulsive desire to lose weight. Most books on the subject acknowledge the universal calorie phobia but somewhat absent-mindedly, as if it could not be the major cause ofa serious illness. How could a fundamentally healthy desire become the cause ofpathological behavior, even ofdeath? Many people would be healthier, no doubt, ifthey ate less. In view of this fact, it is not illogical to suppose that, in anorexia, there must be some motivation other than this healthy desire, some unconscious drive, no doubt, that generates abnormal behavior. By turning anorexia and bulimia into two separate pathologies, the classificators make it easier for us to lose sight of their common basis. The bankruptcy of modern theories The search for hidden motivations is the alpha and omega, ofcourse, of our modern culture. Our number one principle is that no human phenomenon is really what it seems to be. A satisfactory interpretation must rely on one of the hermeneutics of suspicion that have become popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century, or on several ofthese, on a cocktail of soupçon: psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, etc. We automatically assume that social phenomena have little if anything to do with what is obvious in them, in this case the rejection offood. In anorexia, psychoanalysts usually diagnose "a refusal of normal sexuality," due to the patient's excessive desire "to please her father," etc. These explanations are still invoked in books being written right now but the voice is growing fainter. Around this sort of thing the smell of mustiness is overpowering. Even in Lacan's own land, the old arrogance is gone. Early in my life, I had an opportunity to observe that the eating practices ofyoung women have nothing to do with a desire to please their fathers. Just before World War II, a pretty cousin of mine was dieting furiously and her father, my uncle, was storming about helplessly, trying to get her to eat more. Fathers, as a rule, are not pleased to see their daughters starve themselves. This particular father was also a physician, at a time when the medical profession had not yet caught the disease it was already trying to cure. Eating Disorders andMimetic Desire3 This uncle was our family doctor and, as such, had great prestige in my eyes, at least until that day. I had not yet read Freud but my later skepticism regarding his conception offatherhood may well originate in this incident. I immediately...


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